Claude Chabrol has always been the outlier of French New Wave filmmakers. While contemporaries leaned on overcoming and deconstructing the genre, he embraced it by making a career out of thrills and intrigue. Yet, Chabrol always maintained a deft touch; his films are intimate, his influences are grandiose. Chabrol’s characters are often members of the bourgeoisie or the lower classes, and when the aristocracy makes appearances, they’re often in stark contrast to the more economically humble protagonists. Chabrol was also no stranger to random acts of violence or crime; his universe is never cause and effect. Morality has little meaning, because in the end, we will all be united in death.
One of Chabrol’s most adventurous and engaging films is the true story depiction of teenaged Violette Noziere, who abandons her respectable middle-class life for depravity; a move which eventually leads her to murder. Set in Depression-era Paris, Violette seems as though it were shot through a sepia-toned gauze, lending the film a soft focus we’ve come to know from the works of Josef von Sternberg. With a career at its zenith during the setting of Violette, Sternberg appears to be the unspoken orchestrator of events as Violette’s night-time alter-ego seems indebted to the vampish beauty of Marlene Dietrich. Chabrol borrows from the Austrian-American filmmaker to expose the textured eroticism of ordinary life and takes a rather unconventional approach to adapting a true story. He focuses on incidental details rather than the bigger picture. Chabrol seems less inclined to make sweeping statements about morality in Violette, as he’s more interested in exposing the artifice of our real lives and showcasing its obscure beauty.
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Youth is central to Violette, and Isabelle Huppert’s petite frame and almost childlike features lend the film a skewed point of view that is colored neither by experience or shame. Huppert is stunning in the title role, a painting of precocious innocence and powerful sexuality. She is the one who brings romance to the proceedings, even if her actions seem reprehensible in retrospect. Youth is not an excuse for her actions, but it certainly makes sense of them, especially in an environment in which cinema seemed to shed doubt on reality.
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Violette exposes the magic of editing, as Chabrol showcases the domestic scenes and uncomfortable humiliations that Hollywood cinema would leave out. Huppert’s Violette can attempt to recreate a new reality built on artifice and romance, but she’s unable to cut moments from her life and make them disappear like a film editor. This willful selection of reality points to the fruitlessness of our actions and ultimately the power of perception. Genre is merely another way in which we alter our vision of reality, and Chabrol imposes the artificial constructs of genre in order to expose our own futile disavowals of our own mortality.
Justine Peres Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema.